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Bangladesh: Internet Blackout on Rohingya Refugees

Friday, September 13, 2019

Expand A Rohingya refugee stands on a makeshift house at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Cox's Bazar on September 13, 2019.  © 2019 Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images (New York) – New telecommunications and internet restrictions on Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh will disrupt critical humanitarian and emergency services, Human Rights Watch said today. The network shutdown imposed on camp locations in Teknaf and Ukhiya in Cox’s Bazar severely limits communications and access to information for nearly one million refugees.

On September 9, 2019, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission directed all telecommunication operators to shut down 3G and 4G services in the camps, media reports said. Camp residents report that high-speed service has been shut down since September 10. A week earlier, the government had ordered a shutdown of all 3G and 4G services between 5 p.m. and 6 a.m. While 2G services appear to remain available, this may only allow limited calls and text messaging. The Bangladesh government should immediately lift the restrictions.

“The Bangladesh government has a responsibility to ensure safety and security in the Rohingya camps, but shutting down internet access isn’t the way to do it,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Restricting communications in the refugee camps will hinder desperately needed services, worsening already dire living conditions and putting lives at risk.”

Humanitarian aid workers have reported that the shutdown has hampered their ability to provide assistance, including responding to emergencies. One aid worker said they can no longer receive photos and other data from refugees to deliver emergency infrastructure repairs during the monsoons. Refugees “who are affected by the heavy rainfall have to wait until we can reach them,” he said. The weekend before the restrictions, monsoon rains displaced about 15,000 people in the refugee camps.

The shutdown follows several security-related incidents in August. A repatriation attempt by the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments failed because of refugees’ fears of return under current conditions. Residents held a massive demonstration on August 25 in Kutupalong camp, commemorating the second anniversary of the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Rakhine State. And, after alleged Rohingya refugees killed a local politician, law enforcement officers killed four Rohingya refugees who they claimed were involved in the murder.

Bangladesh authorities say that refugees have obtained SIM cards illegally since they cannot be sold to anyone without proper verification of identity documents. The Telecommunication Regulatory Commission has directed mobile phone carrier companies to stop selling SIM cards to Rohingya and to verify the registration details of all active connections in camp areas. Bangladesh officials told Human Rights Watch that some refugees were using internet-based communications for criminal activities.

Under international human rights law, Bangladesh has an obligation to ensure that restrictions on the right to communicate are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression has found that while “shutdowns are frequently associated with total network outages, they may also arise when access to mobile communications, websites or social media and messaging applications is blocked, throttled or rendered ‘effectively unusable.’”

Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information, or to harm people’s ability to freely assemble and express political views. International law guarantees everyone, including non-nationals, the right to freedom of expression.

The refugees’ ability to communicate with relatives and friends outside the camp – particularly those still in Myanmar – is important not only for their wellbeing but as a direct source of information about conditions in Rakhine State. This information is critical for determining whether it is safe to return home, particularly since Myanmar has demonstrated that its information is not reliable, and the UN refugee agency has limited access to the places the Rohingya would potentially return to.

In July 2016, the UN Human Rights Council condemned measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law, and said that all countries should refrain from and cease such measures.

“Bangladesh has received global praise for generously hosting Rohingya refugees who fled atrocities in Myanmar,” Adams said. “But the government risks global criticism if it squanders that goodwill by denying refugees access to information and other basic rights.”

Rwandans Charged With Murder of Exiled Critic

Friday, September 13, 2019

South Africa’s National Prosecution Authority has issued arrest warrants for two Rwandans accused of murdering Rwandan critic Colonel Patrick Karegeya, who was found dead in his hotel room in Johannesburg on January 1, 2014.

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Patrick Karegeya

© 2014 AP

During an inquest into Karegeya’s murder which began five years after the killing, on January 16, in Johannesburg, magistrate Mashiane Mathopa asked why no arrests had been made even though the names and passport numbers of four suspects were known to police. According to media reports, South Africa’s special investigative unit said in written testimony that Karegeya’s murder and attacks on Rwanda’s former army chief of staff General Kayumba Nyamwasa “were directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government.”

From 1994 to 2004, Karegeya was the head of Rwanda’s external intelligence services. But he fell out with the government and was imprisoned twice before fleeing to South Africa in 2007. There he was joined by Nyamwasa, and the two founded the exiled opposition party the Rwanda National Congress (RNC). Both were outspoken critics of the Rwandan government and President Paul Kagame. Nyamwasa survived an assassination attempt in South Africa in 2010.

In the days following Karegeya’s murder, Rwandan officials gloated about his death. Then Minister of Foreign Affairs Louise Mushikiwabo tweeted, “It’s not about how u start, it’s how u finish. This man was a self-declared enemy of my Gov & my country, U expect pity?” Defence Minister James Kabarebe said: “When you choose to be a dog, you die like a dog.” 

Kagame came close to condoning Karegeya’s murder in a public speech: “Any person still alive who may be plotting against Rwanda, whoever they are, will pay the price…Whoever it is, it is a matter of time.”

Rwandan opponents regularly receive threats, and Rwandan authorities routinely fail to investigate or identify those making threats and ordering attacks and bring them to justice. The step by South Africa’s National Prosecution Authority to file charges is an opportunity for the Rwandan government to buck that trend. If the government truly has nothing to hide, it should cooperate with South African judicial authorities and ensure the accused to face justice.

Kazakhstan: Feminist Group Denied Registration

Friday, September 13, 2019
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Zhanar Sekerbaeva co-founder of Feminita, a feminist initiative in Almaty, gives a talk on the demographics of lesbian, bisexual, and queer women in Kazakhstan. 

© 2019 Feminita

(Berlin) – An appeals court in Kazakhstan on September 3 upheld a decision denying Feminita, a national feminist initiative, registration as a nongovernmental organization (NGO). The group’s focus includes the rights of lesbian, bisexual, and queer women.

The Almaty department of the Justice Ministry had refused the group registration on the grounds that it didn’t comply with the Law on Noncommercial Organizations. That refusal was upheld as lawful by both a lower-level court and the appeals court. Registration is required for the group to operate lawfully in the country, and to conduct activities such as raising money and hosting events.

“This appeals court ruling allows an arbitrary and discriminatory decision by the Ministry of Justice to stand,” said Laura Mills, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kazakhstan authorities should stop preventing groups from operating lawfully just because they are critical of the government or work on controversial issues.”

Kazakh authorities have denied registration to certain organizations that are critical of or work on issues deemed controversial by the authorities, for example an organization that campaigns against mass surveillance and detention of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang province in China. They have also repeatedly denied registration to independent trade unions.

Feminita, which has been operating informally since 2015, focuses on promoting the rights of marginalized women in Kazakhstan, from lesbian, bisexual, and queer women to those with disabilities, and sex workers. In December 2017, it first applied for official registration as an NGO, but registration was denied three times over the course of the year.

Each time, the Almaty department of the Justice Ministry said that the organization did not comply with the Law on Noncommercial Organizations. But even though it is required to do so by law, it did not explain what the shortcomings were or what steps Feminita needed to take to comply. Feminita told Human Rights Watch that it does comply with the law.

Feminita filed a case against the Ministry of Justice. In May 2019, a judge ruled that Feminita was not eligible to register under the Law on Noncommercial Organizations or the Law on Charities, holding that its stated goals did not “provide for the strengthening of existing spiritual-moral values … [and] the prestige and role of family in society.” Feminita had not sought to register under the charities law because it doesn’t provide any charitable services.

The appeals court ruled to uphold the lower court’s decision, but provided no further explanation supporting the decision to deny Feminita registration. Nor did it explain how the refusal to register the group could be compatible with the right to freedom of association.

“It feels like they are constantly searching for grounds to stop our work,” Zhanar Sekerbaeva, co-founder of Feminita, told Human Rights Watch. “There are and have been for a long time lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women in Kazakhstan, and with this [denial] it is as if they are excluding an entire group from society.”

In 2015, Kazakhstan changed its laws essentially to allow the government to regulate funding for nongovernmental groups through a government-appointed body. In addition, individuals can face hefty fines and administrative charges if they direct or participate in an unregistered organization.

Kazakhstan is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which requires it to respect the right to freedom of association. The Human Rights Committee, which oversees compliance with the ICCPR, has repeatedly said that “the existence and operation of associations, including those which peacefully promote ideas not necessarily favorably received by the government or the majority of the population, is a cornerstone of a democratic society.”

The committee has held that an arbitrary refusal to register an organization violates the right to freedom of association, and that preventing an organization from operating is only justified if it is “necessary to avert a real and not only hypothetical threat to national security or democratic order, that less intrusive measures would be insufficient to achieve the same purpose, and that the restriction is proportionate to the interest to be protected.”

Feminita members have experienced discriminatory treatment by the authorities before. In 2019, the authorities denied Feminita permission to organize a march for International Women’s Day multiple times. In August 2018, Sekerbaeva was detained, charged with “minor hooliganism,” and fined $30 because she organized a photo shoot that she said was intended to destigmatize menstruation. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Kazakhstan routinely face harassment, discrimination, and the threat of violence.

“Kazakh authorities should reverse course and allow Feminita and all other groups arbitrarily denied registration to register and operate lawfully within the country,” Mills said. “Kazakhstan has nothing to fear from independent organizations and has obligations to live up to.”

US: Rollback of Nursing Home Protections

Friday, September 13, 2019

(New York) – The United States government has proposed new rules for facilities administering antipsychotic drugs that would increase the risks to older people, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch submitted formal comments to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the government regulator for nursing facilities in the United States.

Under US regulations, a physician or prescriber must evaluate every 14 days a person who is being given antipsychotic drugs on an as-needed basis. The proposed rule would lengthen the review period for most residents to every 70 days, decreasing prescriber supervision for drugs that increase the risk of death when used for older people with dementia.  Related Content

“Older people face a documented threat of overmedication with potentially dangerous drugs in US nursing homes,” said Bethany Brown, researcher on older people’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “The proposed rules appear to heighten the risk to older people and should be withdrawn.”

Human Rights Watch urged CMS to withdraw the proposed changes and instead improve enforcement of existing protections against overuse of antipsychotic medications. These drugs can be inappropriately used to control people’s behavior or for staff convenience – a practice known as chemical restraint – rather than to treat medical symptoms. They also pose special health risks to older people with dementia.

CMS should ensure that nursing home residents and their families are informed of treatment alternatives and have the right to refuse medication. The government should also ensure that  nursing  homes employ sufficient staff to provide supportive care to residents rather than using chemical restraint.

In a 2018 report, “‘They Want Docile’: How Nursing Homes in the United States Overmedicate People with Dementia,” Human Rights Watch documented US nursing facilities’ inappropriate use of antipsychotic drugs in older people as well as the administration of the drugs without informed consent. This practice occurred mostly as a result of inadequate enforcement of existing laws and regulations.

Nursing home residents who had been subjected to overmedication told Human Rights Watch about the trauma of losing their ability to communicate, think, and remain awake. Their family members described the pain of witnessing these losses in loved ones.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never approved antipsychotic drugs for use in older people with dementia and warns against their use for symptoms of dementia. Clinical research has found that on average, antipsychotic drugs almost double the risk of death in older people with dementia.

CMS is facing scrutiny from the US House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee for  failing to enforce existing regulations regarding inappropriate antipsychotic drug use in nursing homes.

“The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services should improve protection for nursing home residents by enforcing existing rules, not look for ways to lower the bar,” Brown said. “Residents should have the support they need to live in dignity.”

South Africa: Punish Xenophobic Violence

Friday, September 13, 2019
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Stones and bricks are seen on a street on the outskirts of Johannesburg, Monday Sept. 2, 2019. Police had earlier fired rubber bullets as they struggled to stop looters who targeted businesses as unrest broke out in several spots in and around the city. 

© AP Photo  

(Johannesburg) – The South African police should take swift action to end xenophobic attacks targeting African foreign nationals.

At least twelve people have been killed, thousands displaced, and businesses wantonly looted during the violence that began in late August 2019. Those responsible for previous waves of xenophobic violence in South Africa, including the 2008 violence that left 62 foreign nationals dead and the attacks against foreign truck drivers earlier this year, have rarely faced any penalties for their crimes.

“The vicious cycles of xenophobic violence are spurred by lack of effective policing to protect foreign nationals and their properties,” said Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Merely condemning xenophobic violence is not enough to stop it – the police should thoroughly investigate, arrest, and bring to justice the attackers.”

Police Minister Bheki Cele told the media that, over the last few weeks, the police have arrested more than 600 people on various charges related to public violence and looting, malicious damage to property, and grievous bodily harm. Human Rights Watch is concerned that, as with previous waves of xenophobic violence, prosecutions will fail if police investigations are not thorough.

On September 3, President Cyril Ramaphosa posted a video message on Twitter in which he condemned the violence in the strongest terms and called for it to stop immediately. The violence, however, has not stopped.

Human Rights Watch has documented the sporadic violence since late August targeting African foreign nationals and their businesses in parts of Durban, Pretoria, and Johannesburg, and the surrounding areas of Germiston, Thokoza, Katlehong, Alberton, Jeppestown, Hillbrow, Alexandra, and Malvern.

In most parts of Johannesburg, the violence and looting, mainly of foreign-owned shops, began on September 1, with groups marching and calling on foreigners to leave. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the crowds, armed with various weapons, including machetes and sticks, chanted, “foreigners go back,” using the derogatory term Makwerekwere to refer to foreigners.

Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said that 10 of the 12 people killed in the violence were South Africans. She did not provide their identities or specific details about the circumstances in which they died. Human Rights Watch was unable to independently verify those deaths or the circumstances.

Human Rights Watch verified that two of those killed were Zimbabwean men. One, Isaac Mabandla Sithole, was beaten, stoned, and burned to death by a mob in Katlehong on September 5. Sithole’s distraught widow told Human Rights Watch that he left behind a six-week-old baby. Human Rights Watch has not been able to establish the name and circumstances of death of the second Zimbabwean.

Human Rights Watch spoke on the phone to Zimbabwe’s ambassador to South Africa, David Hamadziripi, on September 11. He confirmed the death of 2 Zimbabwean nationals and indicated that Zimbabwean officials were working to repatriate about 170 Zimbabweans who had asked to return to their country. Nigeria’s Consul General in Johannesburg told the BBC that Nigeria will repatriate approximately 600 of its citizens from South Africa.

This recent violence followed hard on the heels of attacks on foreign truck drivers. Since March, media reports have estimated that there have been over 75 attacks on foreign truck drivers and their cargo. Over a three-week period in May, over 60 trucks were hit with Molotov cocktails. Most attacks were on the N3 highway, which connects Durban to Johannesburg. Although the violence intensified in recent months, protests against foreign truck drivers have resulted in over 200 deaths since March 2018.

Despite these cycles of xenophobic violence, the government has done little to address the attacks, except to issue a National Action Plan to combat xenophobia on March 25. The action plan has yet to be implemented. The authorities should review previous government interventions during periods of xenophobic violence and determine why their actions failed to prevent recurring attacks.

On September 3, the African Union Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, issued a statement condemning the violence and property destruction in South Africa. Mahamat reiterated the African Union’s continued commitment to support the South African government in addressing the root causes of xenophobia.

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a statement on September 9 urging South African authorities to act swiftly to ensure protection for the victims of xenophobic violence and accountability for the attackers.

“When the attackers are not held to account, others will not be deterred from perpetuating the cycles of xenophobic violence,” Mavhinga said. “South Africa should prioritize and guarantee the safety and security of victims and ensure that the attackers are held to account.”

Revealed: The Stark Truth of No-Deal Brexit

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The UK government has been forced by Parliament to make public its contingency plans in the event the UK leaves the EU without a deal. The “Operation Yellowhammer” document sets out the risks in a “no-deal” Brexit scenario.  The document makes clear the severe implications for the human rights of people in the UK, and UK nationals in the EU.

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A British flag flutters in front of a window in London on June 24, 2016, after Britain voted to leave the European Union in the EU BREXIT referendum. 

© 2016 Reuters

The immediate rights impacts are likely to be worse for people on the lowest incomes, as their standard of living is more vulnerable than other groups to  rising food and fuel prices caused by supply shortages and disruption.

The Yellowhammer document also states clearly that “certain types of fresh food supply will decrease,” and although widespread food shortages are unlikely, reduced availability will likely drive up prices. The government concedes “this could impact vulnerable groups”, and foresees additional food supply disruption caused by panic buying and stockpiling by those who can afford it.

Yellowhammer also outlines the impact on medicine supplies, affecting people’s right to health. It also flags potentially significant electricity price increases for consumers, negative impacts on social care for older people, regional fuel shortages, and the danger of civil unrest.

I have spent a lot of time recently documenting problems faced by people on the lowest incomes in the UK. Low income and single-parent households are already struggling after a decade of cuts to social security support and rising living costs. Their reliance on emergency food handouts has already skyrocketed, with many families already having sometimes to choose whether “to heat or eat”.

Yellowhammer makes clear that an active government decision to pursue a no-deal Brexit on October 31, just as winter sets in, would put their most basic rights – to feed their children, and warm their homes, to cook and wash, to care for older people and people with disabilities, and get medicine if they fall ill – even more at risk. A government which proceeds with such action regardless of the consequences would breach international human rights law.

Parliament would surely be debating these vital issues today if the government had not suspended it for five weeks. Instead, with Parliament now muted, the government is gambling recklessly with the human rights of society’s most vulnerable. 

US: How Abusive, Biased Policing Destroys Lives

Thursday, September 12, 2019

September 12, 2019 Video US: How Abusive, Biased Policing Destroys Lives

Abusive policing in Tulsa, Oklahoma that targets black people and poor people, diminishes the quality of life in all communities.

Abusive policing in Tulsa, Oklahoma that targets black people and poor people, diminishes the quality of life in all communities, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch released the report on the eve of the third anniversary of the killing of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man. That killing led Human Rights Watch to investigate everyday police interactions in Tulsa as a window into the larger human rights problems with policing throughout the United States.

The 216-page report, “‘Get on the Ground!’: Policing, Poverty, and Racial Inequality in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” details how policing affects Tulsa, particularly in the segregated and largely impoverished North Tulsa area. Human Rights Watch found that black people are subjected to physical force, including tasers, police dog bites, pepper spray, punches, and kicks, at a rate 2.7 times that of white people. Some neighborhoods with larger populations of black people and poor people experienced police stops more than 10 times the rate of predominantly white and wealthier neighborhoods. Arrests and citations lead to staggering accumulations of court fees, fines, and costs, often for very minor offenses, that trap poor people in a cycle of debt and further arrests for failing to pay.

September 12, 2019 Report “Get on the Ground!”: Policing, Poverty, and Racial Inequality in Tulsa, Oklahoma

A Case Study of US Law Enforcement

“Black people and poor people in Tulsa experience abusive and intimidating policing,” said John Raphling, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The killing of Terence Crutcher, like so many high-profile police killings of black men throughout the country, has helped expose the often discriminatory and brutal everyday tactics used by law enforcement, and the need for fundamental reforms.”

From 2015 through 2018, police in the US shot and killed 3,943 people, according to the Washington Post tracker of police killings. Nearly a quarter of those killed were black, though black people make up only 13.4 percent of the overall population.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 132 people, including 57 who had directly, or through a family member, experienced abusive policing in Tulsa, as well as elected officials, police officers and commanders, community organizers, church leaders, social service providers, researchers, academics, and other community advocates. Human Rights Watch also reviewed data provided by the city, its police department, and the courts about arrests, deadly and nondeadly uses of force, complaints, detentions, citations and court fees, fines, and costs.

Policing, Poverty, and Racial Inequality in Tulsa, Oklahoma

A new special interactive data feature shows maps depicting the geographic correlations between race, poverty, and policing practices in Tulsa.

SEE IT HERE

Black Tulsans described violent encounters with police. In one case, police handcuffed Ira Wilkins outside his car after he fell asleep in the driver’s seat in a parking lot. The officers bent his wrists behind his back, accused him of resisting, then threw him to the ground and pepper-sprayed him in the eyes.

Black Tulsans described abusive and aggressive traffic stops and tickets for relatively minor alleged violations:

  • Sandra Rousseau said that her son was frequently stopped, searched, checked for warrants, and even photographed by Tulsa police officers when he went out with friends.
  • A Tulsa police officer described responding to a call in which a group of other officers had detained a black man walking on the sidewalk without justification, “to find out who he was.” The officer said this type of stop happens frequently.
  • Isabella Shadrack said she was stopped and ordered out of her car at gunpoint, while her 7-year-old daughter watched in terror from the back seat. Officers said they were investigating a stolen car, though no one had reported this car stolen.
  • Julian Givens described being detained for not stopping at a stop sign, and being ordered to sit on the curb, handcuffed, while police searched his car without permission.

According to the department’s own data, of 3,364 distinct acts of “non-lethal” force by Tulsa police from 2012 through 2017, the police department found only two were “out of policy,” and imposed no discipline for either.

Interview: How Policing in One US City Hurts Black and Poor Communities

A series of high-profile killings of black people by police in Tulsa led Human Rights Watch researcher John Raphling to investigate police interactions with black communities. We spoke with him about his findings.

READ THE INTERVIEW

Tulsa was the scene of devastating racial violence in 1921 when a mob of white people invaded the affluent black community of Greenwood, looting and burning businesses, and killing hundreds. To this day, black Tulsans, especially in North Tulsa, which includes Greenwood, experience significant poverty, high unemployment, meager economic development, and segregated schools. This poverty substantially impacts crime and policing; overaggressive policing contributes to the poverty.

The high rate of court debt owed by poor people in Tulsa is both a result of and a compounding factor in the community’s high rates of poverty. The courts impose an array of fines, fees, and court costs on those arrested and cited by police, many of which are used to fund the court system itself. Poor people cannot pay, leading the courts to issue warrants for “failure to pay.” Police then detain, search, and arrest people who are subject to these warrants. Arrest on the warrants leads to further accumulation of debt. Arrests by Tulsa Police for failure to pay court costs is one of the leading reasons for booking in the county jail.

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Levels of Forceful Police Actions

2019 Human Rights Watch

Community leaders in Tulsa have pressed for changes and city officials have recognized that these disparities exist and acknowledged complaints of abusive policing practices. Mayor GT Bynum has begun a process of reform. However, the reforms so far fail to create adequate oversight and accountability mechanisms, and they rarely mandate significant changes in policing practices.

The city has crucial decisions to make about the strength of its reform efforts, Human Rights Watch said. Changes in the conduct of policing are necessary, as is an independent oversight body with meaningful authority. More fundamentally, the city, state, and federal governments should promote economic development in impoverished areas. They should also improve the availability of services, like affordable housing and mental health care and support, that will address some of the root causes of crime, instead of making police the default response to so many societal problems.

“True reform requires fundamental changes in the role police play in the community and how communities achieve public safety,” Raphling said. “Abusive policing tactics, especially when they have a discriminatory effect, will not make anyone safer.”

Click here for a special interactive data feature on policing, poverty and racial inequlaity in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

Belarus: Homophobic Attack on Filmmaker

Thursday, September 12, 2019

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Nikolai Kuprich after the attack.

© 2019 Personal Archive

(Moscow) – Police in Belarus are investigating a brutal attack on a filmmaker and two colleagues early on the morning of August 25, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. Unidentified assailants in Minsk verbally threatened the three men and then violently attacked Nikolai Kuprich, the filmmaker. He was hospitalized for days after the attack with serious head injuries.

Kuprich is a documentary filmmaker who has been working with the Belarus Free Theater, a production group, on a film about the prejudice and discrimination that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people face in Belarus. The film titled, “Pussy Boys,” is slated to be released later in 2019.

“The police in Minsk should ensure that their investigation into the attack on the filmmaker Nikolai Kuprich is speedy and impartial,” said Kyle Knight, senior LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should ensure justice for this attack and reassure LGBT people in Belarus that homophobic violence will not be tolerated.”

Around 4 a.m. on August 25, Kuprich, called Kolya by his friends, was walking with a group of about 10 LGBT friends on Oktyabrskaya street in Minsk when an unidentified man approached and asked if they were “faggots,” said Andrei Zavalei, coordinator of Campaign Against Homophobia, Delo Pi.

“The young man [the assailant] took a step back and karate kicked Kolya right in the face,” Zavalei told Human Rights Watch. “Kolya collapsed onto the ground.” The assailant also attacked two other men who were with Kuprich, both of whom had minor injuries.

Zavalei said that a woman who had been with the attacker approached Kuprich, who was crouched on the ground. “She started wiping up the gushing blood and asked him to not call the police,” Zavalei said. He said that the police showed Kuprich footage of the attack from a nearby gas station security camera.

Kuprich is experiencing memory loss, which doctors have said is possibly due to the blows to his head.

On September 3, the Belarus Investigative Committee opened a criminal case on charges of “hooliganism” (Art. 339, Part 1 of the Criminal Code). On September 4, Kuprich appealed to have the charges amended to “intentional infliction of less severe bodily injury” (Art. 149 of the Criminal Code) or “intentional infliction of serious bodily injury, committed on the ground of racial, national, religious hostility or hatred, political or ideological hostility, as well as on the basis of hostility or hatred in relation to any social group” (Art. 147 Part 2 Paragraph 8 of the Criminal Code).

Belarus does not criminalize same-sex conduct but provides no legal protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Widespread social hostility toward sexual and gender minorities serves to intimidate LGBT rights activists and allies.

“Instances of homophobic and transphobic violence in Belarus rarely reach the media and the courts,” Zavalei said. “Victims often do not make their stories public and do not file complaints with the police, because of a high risk of re-traumatization and ill-conditioned response even by law enforcement agencies.”

The Belarusian Criminal Code provides for “hatred motive” as an aggravating circumstance for a violent crime. However, in the history of contemporary Belarus, Human Rights Watch is aware of only one case in which a Belarus court recognized a homophobic motive.

By contrast, the prosecution and the court ignored the hatred motive despite evidence and witness testimony to the contrary in a highly publicized homophobic murder case in May 2014. The victim, Mikhail Pishchevsky, was beaten at the door of a gay club and subsequently died of his injuries.

“In Kuprich’s case, the authorities should recognize the hatred motive in the attack,” Knight said. “Recognizing the hate motive, along with an effective, impartial investigation, without delay would be an important signal to the victim and the country’s LGBT community.”

China: Ban on Tibet Religious Activity Toughened

Wednesday, September 11, 2019
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People line up at a checkpoint controlling access to Barkor Square in front of the Jokhang temple in center city Lhasa.

Screen shot from video of WeChat account, accessed August 27, 2019. Copy of video on file.

(New York) – A Chinese Communist Party notice banning retired Tibetan government employees from taking part in religious activities violates China’s commitment to religious freedom, Human Rights Watch said today. The notice obtained by Human Rights Watch is undated but appears to have been issued in early August 2019.

The notice requires all Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) government and party offices in charge of retired government employees – regardless of whether those retirees are party members – to submit a list by August 18 of any “retired personnel performing the kora,” the Tibetan practice of circumambulating a sacred site or temple while reciting prayers or mantras. The practice is a standard form of religious devotion among Tibetan Buddhists, particularly the elderly, for whom it is often a daily religious practice as well as a form of exercise. Punishments would be imposed on those named.

“Chinese government authorities are relentless in their quest to control all aspects of Tibetans’ religious practices,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Even those who spent their lives in service to the government aren’t spared.”

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The notice was issued by the department under the TAR Party Committee charged with overseeing retired government employees. It instructs the relevant offices “to earnestly carry out a self-inspection, and to conduct a survey to ascertain whether there is such a phenomenon” of retirees performing circumambulations, and whether there are “such personnel among retired cadres and retired Party personnel in local departments and work units.”

The notice states that “retired personnel performing kora are numerous and widespread,” and adds that even some party members are still “openly and semi-openly” involved. Each office had by 12:30 p.m. on August 18 to “submit a written personnel name list and suggestions for sanctions” to impose on retired government workers found doing kora.

Communist Party members throughout China are banned by party regulations from engaging in religious worship or activities. But there is no basis for the party to impose penalties on people, including government workers, who are not party members. Most government employees in the TAR are not party members.

The TAR authorities set up checkpoints in 2008 at the entrance to the major circumambulation sites in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and since then have been able to identify Tibetans who perform circumambulations there. Human Rights Watch has learned of at least two current schoolteachers, who are considered government employees, being given oral warnings by their superiors after going through these checkpoints, irrespective of whether their purpose had been religious.

Party orders banning religious activities by retired government employees have been reported informally, particularly during annual religious festivals, but are rarely seen in writing. Although this notice specifically mentions kora, sources in Lhasa confirm that a similar ban applies to any visible religious activity by retired government workers, such as visiting temples and monasteries, participating in prayer assemblies and other events for lay devotees, or making religious donations.

Authorities have previously punished retired government workers found to have engaged in religious activities by reducing or cancelling pensions, medical benefit cards, and other retirement benefits, a Lhasa resident told Human Rights Watch in 2015. In early 2012, the TAR authorities punished several thousand Tibetans, including numerous retired government workers, by temporarily detaining them and subjecting them to “re-education” after they traveled to India on pilgrimage to attend religious teachings by the Dalai Lama in exile.

Because retired government employees depend on government pensions and support, they risk similar penalties for other activities that are not approved by the authorities, the Lhasa resident said: “Whether or not you are a party member, if you do anything untoward, say whatever you feel like, or do things that the officials would not like, the government will cut off your pension, and your free medical care pass.”

TAR leaders introduced the ban on religious activities by government workers after a tightening of policy in the TAR in 1994, and it has been in force ever since. But it was never made explicit that the ban also applied to retirees and not just serving officials. Officials in work unit meetings orally transmitted the ban and it is not known to have been written down. A similar ban on religious activities has applied to schoolchildren and students in the TAR since around 1994.

The current document calling for the punishment of religiously active retirees is part of a new party internal disciplinary campaign known as “Not forgetting the original intention, carry on the mission.” The nationwide campaign, which aims to expose and eliminate any disloyalty among party members, began in June.

Zhu Weiqun, a senior Beijing-based official known for seeking to tighten government control on nationality and religious issues, led a central government inspection team on a tour of the TAR in July. Sources told Human Rights Watch that he led discussions that resulted in the notice. At a meeting with TAR leaders on August 6, Zhu criticized their “inadequate” implementation of an ongoing anti-crime campaign, according to official media. The notice suggests that Zhu had also criticized the TAR leaders for lax oversight of retired government employees. At a meeting to promote the campaign in Lhasa on August 27, top TAR officials called on all party members to follow “strict political discipline and political rules,” and “focus on solving the religious problems of party members.”

Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution provides that “[c]itizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.” China is a party to several international human rights treaties that endorse the right to freedom of religion and belief.

“Time and again China’s authorities make a mockery of their own claims to respect religious freedom,” Richardson said. “The government should immediately reverse its campaign to punish people for exercising their fundamental rights.”

EU Commission Wants the Fox in Charge of the Henhouse

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Yesterday, the new European Commission president, Ursula Von der Leyen, proposed Hungarian politician László Trócsányi as enlargement commissioner. Given his background, it’s a move that threatens the credibility of the Commission’s role to promote human rights, rule of law, and fundamental values in the European Union and third states.

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Protesters attend a rally against Hungarian government's clampdown on a top foreign university and non-government organisations in Budapest, Hungary, May 21, 2017.

© 2018 REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Trócsányi would lead the European Neighbourhood Policy and Negotiations portfolio, ensuring that countries that are candidates for EU membership, like Serbia, comply with core minimum EU standards for future membership. States that wish to become EU members are expected to fulfil the Copenhagen criteria, which include having functioning democratic institutions and respect for the rule of law and human rights.

In her “mission” letter to Trócsányi, Von der Leyen urged him to focus “…on the rule of law, the fight against corruption, and the role of an independent media and civil society.”

Trócsányi’s track record makes him completely unsuitable for the task.  

As justice minister between 2014 and 2018, Trócsányi was a key architect in eroding rule of law and democratic institutions in Hungary.

Under his leadership, the ministry tried to introduce a new administrative court system under executive control to make it easier to dismiss legal challenges against right to asylum, free assembly, voting, and police complaints. Trócsányi was also a champion of the law that criminalized assistance to asylum seekers and migrants. Similarly, he had a hand in the legal provisions which ended up chasing Central European University out of Hungary.

During Trócsányi’s tenure, the outgoing European Commission challenged several of the controversial legal measures for being in violation of EU rules, launched legal action against Hungary, and brought the country to the Court of Justice of the European Union. The erosion of the rule of law that he helped oversee ultimately led the European Parliament in September 2018 triggering Article 7 proceedings – a political sanctions mechanism – against Hungary for breaching EU rule of law standards.

If Hungary applied today, it likely wouldn’t meet the basic human rights and rule of law criteria for EU membership.

Giving Trócsányi responsibility for enlargement would mean he oversees the monitoring and enforcing of human rights and rule of law standards in EU candidate countries – standards he helped undermine as a minister.

The European Parliament should do its duty and stand up for basic rule of law and fundamental rights, examine his record closely, and vote to block his appointment. 

Will It Be Business as Usual for Saudis at London’s Arms Fair?

Wednesday, September 11, 2019
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Saudi-led coalition aircraft struck three apartment buildings in Sanaa on August 25, 2017, killing at least 16 civilians, including 7 children, and wounding another 17, including 8 children. After an international outcry, the coalition said that it carried out the attack, but provided no details on the coalition forces involved.  

© 2017 Mohammed al-Mekhlafi

“The future for our defence sector is a very bright one.”

So said Fleur Thomas, head of exports for the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence, as her government prepares to help host Europe’s biggest arms fair in London this week. Many foreign countries will be represented, including several the UK considers to have serious human rights issues, including Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan.

Saudi Arabia will also send delegates to the fair, despite the UK suspending new arms sales to the kingdom following a landmark court ruling in June.

The Court of Appeal ruling laid bare the UK government’s cynical policy of approving arms sales to the Saudis whilst ignoring multiple laws of war violations by the Saudi-led coalition in its disastrous war in Yemen, some using British-made weapons. The court found that the UK government’s decision-making when authorizing arms sales to Saudi Arabia is fundamentally flawed, and rightly led the government to immediately suspend new arms exports – for now.

The ruling has also forced the government to review its decisions on authorizing Saudi arms sales and requires it to properly examine the Saudis’ terrible record in Yemen. This will be a welcome change from the UK’s previous position, when it chose time and again to ignore mounting evidence from independent experts – including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations – of the Saudis’ callous disregard for civilian lives.

But June’s courtroom victory gives only temporary respite. The fear is the UK government will, after a brief cooling off period, announce it has reconsidered Saudi’s actions in Yemen, decided there is nothing to worry about, and reauthorize arms sales.

This should not be allowed to happen. Too many lives are at stake. This week, Human Rights Watch sent Liz Truss, the UK’s new Secretary of State for International Trade, a comprehensive summary – some 402 pages long – of all the violations committed by the Saudi-led coalition that our researchers have documented.

Truss and the government should do the right thing. The documentation we and others are providing makes clear the harm that resuming weapons sales will cause.

And of course no one knows this more than the millions of Yemeni civilians who’ve spent years under bombardment, and now stand on the brink of famine. It’s time Britain put Yemeni lives ahead of its own arms sales.

Release Ill Prisoner in Turkmenistan for Medical Treatment

Tuesday, September 10, 2019
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Alysher Muhametguliyev in an undated photo.

© Turkmen.News

Alysher Muhametguliyev, who is serving a 23-year prison sentence in Turkmenistan’s notorious  Ovadan Depe prison, urgently needs medical care and should be released immediately for medical treatment.

Muhametguliyev was arrested in April 2017 for incitement of religious hatred and other related charges. In June 2017, a court convicted him and nine others in a closed trial, and sentenced most of them to 23 years in prison – the first three to be served in a maximum security prison. They are all accused of affiliation with US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen and the global Islamic movement, Hizmet.

Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most closed and repressively governed countries. The government punishes any kind of independent political or religious expression. Access to information is strictly controlled and no independent monitoring groups are allowed. The government keeps everyone, especially families of prisoners, in a constant state of fear. Torture is widespread and the media is heavily censored. The country ranked last in a 2019 index on global press freedom.

It is very difficult to obtain verified information about the gravity of Muhametguliyev’s current medical condition and treatment.

Already two of Muhametguliev’s co-defendants, who were also imprisoned at Ovadan Depe, have died. Akmyrad Soyunov, a businessman with three children, died in October 2018, at age 37. No information is available about his death, other than the fact that relatives collected his body at Ovadan Depe.

Eziz Hudaiberdiyev, an English teacher and father of four, died in June, also at age 37. People close to his case told me he developed liver problems in prison and lost about 20 kilograms in the last few months of his life. He was transferred to a prison hospital shortly before his death.

Muhametguliev, 39, is a father of three, and a former history teacher and deputy school director. Sources close to his case said that like Hudaiberdiyev and Soyunov, he had no health problems when arrested. But in August, he started to complain of sharp pains in his abdomen.

Muhametguliev has apparently been in the prison infirmary, but the scant available information about medical services in Ovadan Depe raises serious concerns he will not get the treatment he needs, and to which he is entitled.

The Turkmen government should prevent yet another suspicious death by immediately releasing Muhametguliev to get medical care.

A Chance to Curtail Abuse in Germany’s Supply Chains

Tuesday, September 10, 2019
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Bangladeshis work at Snowtex garment factory in Dhamrai, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 19, 2018. 

© 2019 AP Photo/A.M. Ahad

Knowing where products are made is key to stopping human rights abuses in the global supply chain.  An alliance of 64 NGOs and trade unions in Germany—including Human Rights Watch—has launched a Supply Chains Law Campaign urging the German government to propose a bill by 2020 that would ensure German companies put in place human rights safeguards in their supply chains.

Seven years ago to this day, on September 11, 2012, a fire ripped through Ali enterprises garment factory in Pakistan, killing 255 workers and injuring 57. The factory supplied KiK, a well-known German clothing brand with shops offering affordable fashion on many German highstreets. While labor rights organizations successfully demanded that KiK compensate victims of the fire, the company has yet to ensure its supply chain is transparent. Human rights and environmental tragedies continue to surface in the global supply chains of German companies. 

Now is a crucial moment to push for a robust law. Germany’s government of conservatives and social democrats has already agreed to consider legislation on human rights safeguards in supply chains in its coalition agreement. The next national elections are scheduled for September 2021, which means that any new bill would have to be tabled soon. The Campaign hopes to convince wavering MPs and mobilize the public to support a petition addressed to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It will not be easy. Conservative and social democrat coalition partners have struggled to agree on a national action plan to protect human rights in company supply chains, and a mechanism to monitor its implementation. A German law would be vital to regulating company behaviour in Germany and protecting rights in the supply chains of one of the world’s largest export economies.

But a German law could prove a positive influence across the European Union. Germany will have the EU Presidency in the second half of 2020 and would be in a great position to help pave the way for EU-wide mandatory due diligence, ensuring strong, rights-respecting business practices in many more countries.

Nigeria: Military Holding Children as Boko Haram Suspects

Tuesday, September 10, 2019
September 10, 2019 Video Nigeria: Military Holding Children as Boko Haram Suspects

The Nigerian military has arbitrarily detained thousands of children in degrading and inhuman conditions for suspected involvement with the armed Islamist group Boko Haram. 

(Abuja) – The Nigerian military has arbitrarily detained thousands of children in degrading and inhuman conditions for suspected involvement with the armed Islamist group Boko Haram, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Many children are held without charge for months or years in squalid and severely overcrowded military barracks, with no contact with the outside world.   The 50-page report, “‘They Didn’t Know if I Was Alive or Dead’: Military Detention of Children for Suspected Boko Haram Involvement in Northeast Nigeria,” documents how Nigerian authorities are detaining children, often based on little or no evidence. Children described beatings, overwhelming heat, frequent hunger, and being packed tightly in their cells with hundreds of other detainees “like razorblades in a pack,” as one former detainee said.   “Children are being detained in horrific conditions for years, with little or no evidence of involvement with Boko Haram, and without even being taken to court,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Many of these children already survived attacks by Boko Haram. The authorities’ cruel treatment adds to their suffering and victimizes them further.”   The Nigerian government should sign and put into effect a United Nations handover protocol to ensure the swift transfer of children apprehended by the military to child protection authorities for rehabilitation, family reunification, and community reintegration. Other countries in the region, including Chad, Mali, and Niger, have already signed such protocols. September 10, 2019 Report “They Didn’t Know if I Was Alive or Dead”

Military Detention of Children for Suspected Boko Haram Involvement in Northeast Nigeria

  Between January 2013 and March 2019, Nigerian armed forces detained over 3,600 children, including 1,617 girls, for suspected involvement with non-state armed groups, according to the UN. Many are detained at Giwa military barracks in Maiduguri, the main military detention facility in Borno State.   In June 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed in Maiduguri 32 children and youth who had been detained as children at Giwa barracks for alleged involvement with Boko Haram. None of the children said they were taken before a judge or appeared in court, as required by law, and only one saw someone who he thought may have been a lawyer. None were aware of any charges against them. One was detained when he was only 5 years old.   Nigerian authorities arrested the children during military operations, security sweeps, screening procedures for internally displaced people, and based on information from informants. Many of the children said they were arrested after fleeing Boko Haram attacks on their village or while seeking refuge at camps for internally displaced people. One said he was arrested and detained for more than two years for allegedly selling yams to Boko Haram members. Several girls had been abducted by Boko Haram or forced to become Boko Haram “wives.”   Interview: Children Behind Bars

How did children victimized by Boko Haram end up in a Nigerian military prison? Advocate Jo Becker tells the story. 

What happened Approximately one-third of the children interviewed said security forces beat them during interrogation after their arrest or at Giwa barracks. One girl who was forced to marry a Boko Haram member said that after soldiers captured her, “The soldiers were beating us with their belts, calling us names and telling us they will deal with us because we are Boko Haram wives.” Others said they were beaten if they denied association with Boko Haram.   Children described sharing a single cell, approximately 10-by-10 meters, with 250 or more detainees. They said the stench from a single open toilet was often overwhelming and that detainees sometimes fainted from the heat. In Maiduguri, the average annual maximum temperature is 35 degrees Celsius and temperatures can exceed 40 degrees.   Nearly half of the children said they saw dead bodies of other detainees at Giwa barracks. Many said they suffered frequent thirst or hunger.   Fifteen of the children had been detained for more than a year, and some had been held for more than three years. None had been allowed to contact family members outside the detention center, nor had the authorities contacted their families. Such cases may constitute enforced disappearances, a serious human rights violation.   The children said that Giwa has a cell for boys under 18 with children as young as 7, or even younger. The military also detains children in adult cells, where children said food and water were scarcer and conditions even more crowded. Very young children and babies are kept with their mothers and older girls in a separate cell. Three girls said they saw male soldiers making sexual advances toward female detainees or removing girls from the cell for long periods for what they believed was sexual exploitation.   The military provides no formal education or rehabilitation activities for children at Giwa. Children reported that their only activities were prayer, watching television, and informal lessons that some children provided for others. The overcrowded conditions made physical activity impossible, and some children said they developed sores from restricted movement.   Since January 2013, Nigerian authorities have released at least 2,200 children from detention, nearly all without charge. According to the UN, 418 children were detained in 2018, a significant decrease from 2017, when over 1,900 children were detained.   Following their release, some children said they suffered social stigma from presumed involvement with Boko Haram, even if they had no ties to the group. Nearly all said they wanted to go to school, but many said that available schools were too far away, or that they didn’t have money for transportation.   Nigerian authorities should immediately release children currently in military custody. If military or intelligence authorities have credible evidence of criminal offenses by children, they should transfer them to civilian judicial authorities to be treated in accordance with national and international juvenile justice standards.   “Nigeria faces formidable challenges from the Boko Haram insurgency, but detaining thousands of children is not the answer,” Becker said. “Children affected by the conflict need rehabilitation and schooling, not prison.”

Iran: Draconian Sentences for Rights Defenders

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

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Iranian workers chant slogans during a May Day demonstration in front of the former US embassy in Tehran, May 1, 2006, protesting against the labor resolutions and their delayed payments. 

@ 2006 Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

(Beirut) – Iran’s judiciary is dramatically increasing the costs of peaceful dissent in Iran, Human Rights Watch said today. Since July 31, 2019 alone, revolutionary courts have sentenced at least 13 activists to prison sentences of more than a decade for peaceful dissent.

“Again and again, Iranian revolutionary court judges have been ensuring that anyone who dares challenge the authorities will pay a draconian price,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “When activists who raise issues that concern many Iranians are crushed with such harsh sentences, the judiciary’s promise of combating wrongdoing becomes a mockery of justice.”

In just the most recent cases, on September 7, a revolutionary court sentenced six labor rights activists to sentences ranging from 14 to 19 years. On August 27, the lawyer for a 22-year-old woman who had protested compulsory hijab announced that she had been sentenced to a total of 24 years. On July 31, a revolutionary court sentenced three other women detained for protesting compulsory hijab laws to sentenced ranging from 11 to 18 years.

On August 24, the lawyer for Kioomars Marzban, a satirist who has been in pretrial detention for a year, tweeted that his client has been sentenced to 23 years. Similarly over the past two weeks, a journalist and an activist arrested during a peaceful May day protest have been sentenced to more than 10 and 11 years in prison, respectively.

In each case, if the sentence is upheld, the person will have to serve the harshest sentence among the charges for which they have been convicted.

The campaign to support the prisoners of Haft Tappeh (sugar cane company) reported the September 7 sentences, including for Ismael Bakhshi, a prominent labor rights activist sentenced to 14 years, and Sepideh Gholian, a journalist and labor rights activist, sentenced to 19 years and 6 months. Both have been held since January 20. The charges, as cited by Human Rights Activists News Agency, HRANA, were all for nonviolent acts, including "assembly and collusion to act against national security," "membeship in an illegal group of Gam," an online publication, "propaganda against the state," and "publishing false news."

The authorities had arrested Bakhshi and Gholian after they alleged that they had been tortured when they were detained in the aftermath of sugarcane factory labor protests in November 2018.

The campaign’s Twitter account also reported that Amir Amirgholi, Sanaz Allahyari, Asal Mohammadi, and Amir Hossein Mohammadifar, members of the editorial board of the online publication Gam and who have also been detained since January, have been sentenced to 18 years each in prison on similar charges. If the verdicts are upheld, each of the six labor rights defenders has to spend seven years in prison.

On August 31, HRANA reported that Branch 28 of Tehran’s revolutionary court had sentenced Atefeh Rangriz, a labor rights activist detained in Qarchak prison near Tehran since May 1, to 11 years and 6 months in prison and 74 lashes on charges that include “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “disrupting public order.”

On August 24, the family of Marizeh Amiri, a journalist with the Shargh daily paper who was also arrested on May 1, reported that Branch 28 of the revolutionary court had sentenced her to 10 years and 6 months in prison and 148 lashes. HRANA reported that Amiri faced charges that include “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “disrupting public order.” If the sentences are upheld, Rangriz and Amiri must serve 7.5 and 6 years in prison respectively.

On August 27, Hossein Taj, tweeted that his client Saba Kordafshari, a 22-year-old-woman who was arrested for protesting compulsory hijab, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for “encouraging and providing for [moral] corruption and prostitution,” seven and a half years for “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” and one and half years for “propaganda against the state.” If the sentences are upheld, she will have to serve 15 years.

On July 31, Branch 31 of Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced Yasman Ariani, her mother Monireh Arabshahi, and Mojgan Keshavarz (who were all arrested for protesting compulsory hijab laws) to 5 years for “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” one year for “propaganda against the state,” and 10 years for “encouraging and providing for [moral] corruption and prostitution.” The court sentenced Keshavarz to an additional seven and a half years for “insulting the sacred.” If these sentences are upheld on appeal, each woman would serve 10 years.

On August 24, Mohammadhossein Aghasi tweeted that branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court had sentenced Marzban, a 26-year-old satirist, to 23 years in prison. Aghasi said that Marzban, who worked with multiple news websites when he lived outside the country before returning to Iran in 2017, had been convicted of charges including “cooperating with an enemy state.” Marzan has also been convicted of insulting authorities and sacred beliefs. If his sentence is upheld, he will serve 11 years.

On September 8, Mizan News, the judiciary’s news agency, reported that Ayatollah Raeesi, the head of the judiciary, ordered that “some of the recent cases will be tried fairly at the appeals level.” It appears that the order was communicated with regards to the conviction of the labor activists, but the judiciary has not shared any more details.

Earlier this year, on March 11, authorities sentenced Nasrin Sotudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes for her peaceful activism including defending women who protested compulsory hijab laws. On April 23, the court of appeal upheld the sentence. Sotoudeh, who has been detained since June 2018, has to serve 12 years in prison.

Iran’s labor law does not recognize the right to create labor unions independent of government-sanctioned groups such as the Islamic Labor Council. Since 2005, authorities have repeatedly harassed, summoned, arrested, convicted, and sentenced workers affiliated with independent trade unions.

Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) protect the right to form and join labor unions. Iran is a party to both treaties. Iran is also a member of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

 

A Glimmer of Hope for Workers in Georgia

Tuesday, September 10, 2019
August 22, 2019 Video Video: Miners at Risk for Death and Injury in Georgia

The safety of workers in Georgia’s mines is at serious risk due to insufficient government regulation and resulting mining practices that prioritize production quotas and put workers’ safety in jeopardy.

Merab, a 31-year-old manganese miner in Georgia, is lucky to be alive. Two years ago, while working underground, he suffered a deep cut around his waist when an exhausted colleague pressed the start button by mistake on a piece of mining equipment. He was working 12-hour shifts over 15 straight days, including at night ­ a system affecting around 380 workers employed at Georgian Manganese, in Chiatura, western Georgia.

But there could be a glimmer of hope for workers like Merab, with signs the government may finally be taking a long-needed look at the question of working hours and related issues.

August 22, 2019 Report “No Year without Deaths”

A Decade of Deregulation Puts Georgian Miners at Risk

Our August report, “No Year Without Deaths” documented how quota pressures and insufficient rest contribute to unsafe working conditions. Workers in one coal and one manganese mine described suffering deep cuts, being buried under rocks as roofs collapsed, losing limbs, suffering concussions, or narrowly avoiding serious accidents. This is possible because Georgian law does not sufficiently regulate working time, and since 2006 there has not been a proper system of workplace labor inspections in place.

In late August in a meeting to review our findings, representatives of Georgian civil society, trade unions, parliament, the EU and US delegations, and other key actors looked for ways to improve labor conditions. The discussion focused on a parliamentary initiative to be introduced in the autumn which would address legal gaps, including provisions for a full labor inspectorate and hours of work. Georgian civil society activists, however, remain alert to the risk that critics of regulation will seek to weaken the provisions or have the initiative’s implementation postponed, leaving workers unprotected and at risk.

On his part Merab told me recently that although injured at the mine, he now wants to go back to the same job, working 12-hour shifts. There aren’t other jobs paying as much in his town – in fact, the mine is the municipality’s main employer.

Workers put up with dangerous work conditions because their need for work gives them little choice. But the Georgian government does have a choice ­ and an obligation ­ to protect its workers. Georgia should do the right thing and regulate hours of work, put in place a full labor inspectorate, and ensure that Merab and all Georgian workers can work in safe, decent conditions.

Remembering a Powerful Voice in the Disability Rights Movement

Monday, September 9, 2019
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Marca Bristo, President of Access Living, speaks at an event marking the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilites Act in Washington, Monday, July 26, 2010.

© 2010 AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

It is with deep sadness that we mourn the passing of Marca Bristo, tireless partner to and supporter of Human Rights Watch’s Disability Rights program. To me and so many around the world, Marca was a true force of nature; a fierce advocate, visionary thinker, incredible mentor, and kind friend. She died Monday at the age of 66.

Marca dedicated her life to pushing for the rights of people with disabilities in the United States and abroad. And she left her mark: from playing a key role in the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act to founding Access Living in Chicago, to influencing other countries’ efforts on equality, inclusion and independent living for people with disabilities.

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Marca Bristo at the Chicago Disability Pride Parade, 2017.

© 2017 Access Living

I first met Marca during negotiations on the United Nations disability rights treaty in New York. She quickly became a mentor and ally. When Marca spoke, you listened because she asked the tough and necessary questions. She embodied the disability community’s motto: “Nothing about us, without us.” She was extraordinary.

When I joined Human Rights Watch nearly 10 years ago, I knew we needed a strong group of advisers, particularly experts with disabilities, to steer our new work on disability rights. I knew we needed Marca.

From the start, Marca demanded that we not only advocate for inclusion and accessibility but practice it ourselves. Marca was instrumental in pushing Human Rights Watch to hire more staff with disabilities, make our offices more accessible, and develop a reasonable accommodations policy. Human Rights Watch benefitted a great deal from her wise counsel, dogged questions, and steadfast encouragement – and so did I, both professionally and personally. “I’m proud of you, kiddo,” she told me during one of our last phone calls.

It meant all that much more when she called me some time ago to share that Human Rights Watch would be the recipient of Access Living’s 2019 Lead On! Award for the empowerment, inclusion and independence of people with disabilities. I felt like a student being recognized by her master teacher. And on the evening of the gala, it was clear we were celebrating all that Marca had taught us.

My thoughts go out to Marca’s family and the many people around the world whose lives she touched. As we continue our fight for the rights and inclusion of people with disabilities, with their voices at the forefront, Marca’s legacy lives on.

Woman Banned from Stadiums in Iran Attempts Suicide

Monday, September 9, 2019
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Iran's supporters shout during the FIVB Men's Volleyball World Championship first round match between Iran and Italy in Milan September 27, 2010. 

© 2010 Reuters

In March, Sahar was arrested by police trying to enter the main stadium in Teheran to watch a football match. Today, the 29-year-old lies in a hospital bed in critical condition, with life-threatening burns from a suicide attempt outside the courthouse where she faced charges for “improperly wearing hijab.” 

Since 1981, Iran has banned female spectators from football and other stadiums. As a consequence, some women dress as men to access matches, posting photos on social media in protest, and others demonstrate in front of stadiums. 

Sahar’s tragic arrest, jailing, and suicide attempt underscore the need for Iran to end its ban on women attending sports matches – and the urgency for regulating bodies like FIFA to enforce its own human rights rules.

Sahar’s sister told Rokna, an Iranian news outlet, that Sahar was trying to attend a football match when morality police arrested her in front of the country’s main sports complex, Azadi (Freedom) stadium. According to her sister, after the arrest Sahar was sent to Qarchak prison before being released on bail. Her sister also said that Sahar has bipolar disorder, and her mental health deteriorated while in prison. On the day of the suicide attempt, Sahar apparently learned from judicial authorities that she would have to serve 6 months in prison. She set herself on fire outside the court.

The stadium ban is not written into law or regulation but is ruthlessly enforced by the country’s authorities. Iran’s ban is a clear violation of the rules in FIFA’s constitution, the statutes, and human rights policy. Article 4 of the statutes says discrimination against women “is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”

In June, FIFA president Gianni Infantino warned the Iranian Federation that it must take concrete steps to allow women in stadiums or else face sanctions. In August, Iranian authorities arrested four women, including one award-winning photojournalist, for flouting the stadium ban. The four were later released on bail.

Following FIFA’s pressure, Iran’s sport officials have said that women will be allowed to watch the next national team game at the Azadi stadium – but that is not enough.

FIFA’s long delay in enforcing its own rules means the ban continues and leaves the brave women and girls in Iran who challenge the ban exposed to harassment, beatings, and arrests by the Iranian authorities. FIFA urgently needs to uphold its own human rights rules, end gender discrimination, and punish violators. 

Disability Rights Should Be Central in US Presidential Race

Monday, September 9, 2019
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Protesters supporting people with disabilities gather outside the White House in Washington, May 15, 2017.

© 2017 AP Photo/Susan Walsh

This week, ten United States presidential candidates will take the stage to debate climate change, healthcare, immigration, economic inequality, and education – all of which have direct implications for people with disabilities. But will there be any mention of disability rights?

During July’s debates, not a single question or answer touched on disability rights. The absence of this key issue in the debates underscores the obstacles people with disabilities face trying to take part meaningfully in the American political system.

One in four Americans live with a disability, including 35 million people of voting age. But voter turnout among people with disabilities is low. According to one analysis, if people with disabilities voted at the same rate as other US voters, they would cast 2.35 million additional votes. Candidates should work to improve accessibility for and engagement of people with disabilities in this election cycle.  

Almost 30 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law, the US electoral system is still shockingly inaccessible for people with disabilities. Earlier this summer, one study found that every 2020 presidential candidate’s website failed to comply with the ADA. The US Government Accountability Office found that more than half of all polling places it examined around the 2016 presidential election had at least one obstacle for people with disabilities: voting stations that were not accessible for wheelchair users, dysfunctional earphones for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and lack of privacy for voters with disabilities.

Unfortunately, these obstacles are not limited to polling stations; lack of reasonable accommodations also affects elected representatives once in office. A Wisconsin state representative, Jimmy Anderson, who uses a wheelchair and has difficulty traveling, was denied his request to dial-in to legislative meetings by phone. Refusing to provide this reasonable accommodation sets a dangerous precedent for all Americans with disabilities.

In spite of these challenges, 2018 midterms saw a promising increase in voting rates among people with disabilities.

Silence on disability rights during the 2020 presidential race – particularly amid many minority-specific discussions around racism, immigration, and women’s rights – is both notable and unacceptable. Candidates seeking elected office should work to uplift the voices of all constituents, including the quarter of Americans who have disabilities, and champion policies that would promote their full inclusion in US politics.

Burundi: UN Rights Body Should Extend Inquiry

Monday, September 9, 2019
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Member of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, Françoise Hampson (L), and chairman Doudou Diène (C), give a press conference to present a report on rights violations in the country on September 5, 2018 in Geneva.

© 2018 Getty Images

(Geneva) – The United Nations Human Rights Council should extend the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi during its ongoing session in Geneva, Human Rights Watch said today. The commission published its report on September 4, 2019.

Broad support for the important oversight mechanism from member countries across all regions would send a strong signal to Burundi’s ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), and the government that the world is closely monitoring the situation ahead of the country’s 2020 presidential and legislative elections.

“The Commission of Inquiry’s report confirms that grave and widespread human rights violations are persisting,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Despite these findings, Burundian authorities minimize and deny the gravity of the situation and have stepped up pressure on refugees to return.”

The commission concluded in its report that “serious human rights violations – including crimes against humanity – have continued to take place since May 2018, in particular violations of the right to life, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, sexual violence, and violations of economic and social rights, all in a general climate of impunity.” The targets, it said, were in particular real and suspected opposition supporters and Burundians who have returned from abroad, including those under a United Nations-backed voluntary repatriation program.

The commission was established in September 2016 to investigate human rights violations and abuses in Burundi since April 2015, including whether and to what extent they may constitute international crimes. Burundi’s government has refused access to the commission, and despite evidence to the contrary, it claims the situation in the country is stable and peaceful.

At a September 4 news conference, the commissioners described an environment of “‘calm based on terror.” Their report highlights that members of the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, now control and commit abuses against the population across the country “to keep [them] in check and compel their allegiance to CNDD-FDD.” The commission documented cases of disappearances, torture, and ill treatment of recently repatriated refugees and found that many “had the food kits and the money they were given, taken from them by Imbonerakure and local administrative authorities.”

On August 25, Interior Minister Pascal Barandagiye and his Tanzanian counterpart, Kangi Lugola, jointly visited Nduta camp in Tanzania and called on refugees to return to Burundi. Lugola later told Agence France-Presse that Tanzania would begin to send all Burundian refugees back on October 1 and continue at a rate of 2,000 a week, stating that “Burundi is at peace and the refugees should go home.” Just over 180,000 Burundian refugees currently live in three camps in Tanzania.

However, in a media statement, a UN refugee agency spokesperson said in late August that hundreds still flee Burundi each month and that conditions in the country are “not conducive to promote returns.” About 75,000 Burundians have returned from Tanzania since August 2017, when Burundi, Tanzania, and the UN refugee agency signed a tripartite agreement to assist those wishing to return on a voluntary basis. In March 2018, Burundi and Tanzania set a target of repatriating 2,000 Burundians a week for the rest of the year, a target that Lugola restated in August due to frustrations over a far lower rate of return.

Setting targets for voluntary repatriation raises the risk of unlawful forced return if fewer than the target figure sign up, Human Rights Watch said

The 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 African Refugee Convention prohibit refoulement, the return of a refugee to a place where their life, physical integrity, or freedom would be threatened. Refoulement occurs not only when a refugee is directly rejected or expelled, but also when indirect pressure on individuals is so intense that it leads them to believe that they have no practical option but to return to a country where they face serious risk of harm.

Burundi plunged into a widespread political, human rights, and humanitarian crisis when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his decision to run for a controversial third term in 2015. Abuses have persisted, and in June, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting worrying patterns of abuse, including killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and beatings, mostly by the Imbonerakure and local administrative officials and targeting real or perceived members of the recently registered opposition party, the National Congress for Freedom (CNL, Congrès National pour la Liberté).

The commission is the last remaining monitoring mechanism that can publicly report on the human rights situation in Burundi. The government forced the UN rights office to leave the country in February, and most independent local nongovernmental organizations and media outlets have been shut down or suspended.

In September 2017, Burundi supported an alternative resolution proposed by African states at the Human Rights Council to provide technical support to the government to improve its human rights record. However, the government revoked the experts’ visas and expelled them in May 2018. Burundian authorities have also failed to sign a working agreement with African Union-mandated human rights observers, significantly hampering their work.

Extending the commission’s mandate will provide important scrutiny of the country’s grave human rights situation leading up to the May 2020 elections, Human Rights Watch said. Since the beginning of the year, the exiled independent organization Ligue Iteka has documented 264 killings, 573 arrests, 194 cases of torture, and 34 disappearances.

A May 2018 constitutional referendum, which paved the way for Nkurunziza to run for two new seven-year terms, took place in an environment of widespread ill-treatment by local authorities, the police, and Imbonerakure members, with authorities doing little to bring those responsible to account. 

Although Nkurunziza has said he will not run again, the commission drew particular attention to the “major risk” posed by the 2020 election. Dozens of victims interviewed in 2019 told Human Rights Watch that refusing to join the CNDD-FDD and its youth league or to attend their rallies frequently resulted in threats and violent retribution.

A man who fled Ngozi province in June said that after refusing to join the ruling party on several occasions, he heard a knock on his door one night. “The CNDD FDD representative and two Imbonerakure from my hill were there,” he said. “They had arrested three men I know. They accused us of setting fire to a local party office, but it’s not true. They took us to a nearby river, and I saw one of the Imbonerakure lunge at one of the men with a machete. I jumped into the river and swam 50 meters to the other side.”

The man managed to escape the country. Human Rights Watch independently confirmed the deaths of two of the men he was detained with.

The political repression in Burundi has been compounded by growing concerns over the deteriorating humanitarian situation. According to the World Health Organization there have been over 5 million cases of malaria and 1,800 malaria-related deaths in Burundi since the beginning of 2019. In its September report, the commission concludes that “the daily conditions of Burundians … are becoming worse and worse.”

“The victims deserve to see the people responsible for this crisis prosecuted, and the commission’s authoritative reports contribute to achieving justice,” Mudge said. “Those responsible for the ongoing serious crimes in Burundi want to shut the commission down because they know the world is watching and they will one day be held to account.”

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